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Don't go now: Benji brilliant enough to go around again in 2022

If it's the fairytale farewell Benji Marshall is chasing on Sunday he need look no further than grand final night 2019 for inspiration, when another champion playmaker, Cooper Cronk, signed off with a premiership in his final game.

In game No.372 of an illustrious career, Cronk made it back-to-back-to-back titles after steering the Storm to glory in 2017 and the Roosters in 2018.

Back in 2008, Manly's Steve Menzies had also enjoyed the dream send-off in a record-breaking 40-0 belting of Melbourne in the decider.

Closing in on his 35th birthday at the time, "Beaver" brought the house down at ANZ Stadium with a late try – the 180th of his career – as he snared a second premiership ring some 12 years after his first.

Marshall also chases a second title on Sunday, 16 years after goose-stepping and flick-passing his way into the hearts of Wests Tigers fans as the joint venture downed the Cowboys to claim the 2005 crown.

Whether the Rabbitohs' night end in delight or despair, the 36-year-old has done more than enough in 2021 to suggest he could go around again next year and become just the fifth man in history to play more than 350 first-grade games.

Benji's overlooked resilience his proudest trait

Top of that list for now and most likely forever is the incomparable Cameron Smith on 430 games, with Cronk (372), Darren Lockyer (355) and Terry Lamb (350) rounding out the exclusive club.

Like his longtime teammate Cronk, Smith's last game also ended in premiership glory, although his retirement announcement didn't come until 135 days after the 2020 grand final victory over Penrith.

Speculation surrounding his future followed Smith all season long, unlike Lockyer, who let the league world know in March of 2011 that he'd be calling time that year.

A three-time premiership player with the Broncos, Lockyer's pursuit of a fourth title in his final season was cut short by a fractured cheekbone suffered in the semi-final win over the Dragons.

After four days of intense speculation, Lockyer was ruled out of the preliminary final, which the Broncos lost 26-14 to Manly.

For Canterbury legend Lamb, there would be no fairytale send-off either, instead signing off in the final home and away game of 1996, a 50-22 win over the Cowboys. 

Lamb's legendary longevity and durability delivered him three premierships between 1984 and 1995 as well as a Rothmans Medal and an exalted place in Bulldogs history.

When it comes to club legends, they don't come any bigger than Menzies, whose magical night in 2008 came in game No.349 for the club he represented with distinction across 16 seasons.

Panthers v Rabbitohs - Grand final

This weekend's decider will be Marshall's 347th appearance in a storied career that began late in the 2003 season as a lightly framed teenager fresh out of renowned league nursery Keebra Park High.

Marshall has joked this week that coach Wayne Bennett "already has me retired" but given the supercoach was astute enough to throw the veteran a lifeline this year there's no doubt he'd back Benji to play on.

Whether that be at Redfern under new coach Jason Demetriou or a fifth career club, Benji has much to offer on and off the field and would be a worthy member of the exclusive 350 Club.

Having farewelled Smith and Cronk in 2020 and 2019 respectively, as well as Paul Gallen (348 games), Darius Boyd (337), John Sutton (336) and Adam Blair (331) in recent times the game could do with the feelgood story of Benji powering on at 37 years young in 2022.

No fuss for a star: Benji now has a chance to finish on top

The temptation will be strong to hang 'em up on Sunday if the Rabbitohs deliver a ring that must have seemed a million miles away when the Tigers turned their back on him last year, but you get the feeling the desire still burns and the competitive edge is still sharp.

From centre to halfback, five-eighth to interchange impact player, Marshall's contribution to South Sydney's campaign has been invaluable.

From carving up the Titans with two tries and three line-break assists at Cbus Super Stadium in round seven to laying on a try for Campbell Graham with a deft short ball in the preliminary final, Benji has been everything Bennett hoped for and more.

The Rabbitohs head in a new direction in 2022 with Adam Reynolds, Dane Gagai and Jaydn Su'A moving on and Bennett handing the reins to Demetriou. They have also recruited Anthony Milford, a more than handy X-factor who at 27 should have plenty of good years left in him.

If there's no spot in the No.14 for Benji at Redfern then why not Belmore, where he'd make the ideal mentor for Matt Burton, or Newcastle as a perfect replacement for Roosters-bound Connor Watson.

Surely it wouldn't take too much imagination for Trent Barrett or Adam O'Brien to see the benefits of having a man of Marshall's calibre around the club to guide the next generation and pass on the wisdom that 19 seasons and 347 games buys you.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.